Another barefaced direct order that rips up the rulebook of good governance. Another Labour minister blames the last Nationalist government for what’s gone wrong (greylisting, flooded roads, you name it) — even though Labour’s been in power for almost a decade. Another broken promise, unashamedly telling people with jobs on the line your signature isn’t worth the paper it’s written on…
And yet, the world does not come to an end. The government does not collapse? On the contrary, social media is flooded with praise for the government by thousands of the very voters Labour has lied to, time and again.
Are we surrounded by cretins? Well, yes and no. If you want to understand the people who keep making you ask if you’re the one who’s going mad, the social and psychological sciences can help.
First, the comparative perspective. You’re not alone. There’s an entire industry based on producing books for people like you, who are numerous enough to make such books bestsellers.
Thomas Erikson, a Swedish business consultant, has made a small fortune following his blockbuster, Surrounded by Idiots — a guide for people driven to despair by the stupidity in the global corporate world.
The Italian philosopher, Maurizio Ferraris, has helped his fellow countrymen with a treatise demonstrating that ‘imbecility is a serious matter’.
A French collection on the psychology of stupidity has earned the praise of Steven Pinker (“We need books like this one!”).
And the UK radio host James O’Brien has created a cult following by dismantling Boris Johnson’s lies and his voters’ excuses and praise. Yet, Johnson is still prime minister, and his successor (whether it’s Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak) will be someone who defended him till (almost) the end.
If even rational Sweden needs books on how to handle idiots, clearly no one is safe. Whether you consider that depressing or a reassuring sign that there’s a global community of fellow sufferers you can turn to is up to you.
Second, what the sciences show is that, strictly speaking, there are no cretins — there is only cretinous behaviour. Obviously, some of us are only occasionally stupid, while we all know someone who’s a virtuoso performer — a Paganini of stupidity.
The point is, however, there are various factors making us all vulnerable to being stupid more frequently — something in the nature of the human brain, of our globalised world, of online communication and of the people ready to exploit all of that.
Let’s stick to Malta. A society based on rapid economic growth and demographic change is one that is unstable. Past experience counts for little. The numbers of scandals and sums of money are so big that they’re difficult to absorb.
We can barely keep more than five things in mind at any one time. How many corrupt direct orders can you keep track of before one blurs into the other? The deficit is going up by the billions — how many of us can adequately judge what that means?
Unless the media reports introduce some sense of proportionality — comparing, say, the circa €50 million promised to Air Malta workers to, say, the police budget — then many of us will remain, effectively, innumerate.
Together with innumeracy, other developments have made many of us illiterate, in the sense of being unable to read our own society. It is tempting to see the online world as a mirror of the offline world. Alas, it’s a distorting mirror.
Online, it’s easier to post comments unthinkingly — there aren’t the usual social brakes. Next, the unthinking post more often than the people who take the time to reflect. The online world, being more full of blind partisanship, under-represents the average social media user.
Besides, the ideas that spread farthest and fastest online are the divisive ones. Professional trolls are expert at throwing out arguments designed to get people to forget the issue and, instead, get people to defend their preferred political party as a badge of identity.
O’Brien calls it “footballification”, referring to how political allegiance has come to resemble fandom. But the phenomenon is an unholy alliance between algorithms designed to drive platform traffic and political operators ready to exploit the business model.
What of those of us who should know better because they’ve had a better education? Gibson’s law (“For every PhD, there’s an equal and opposite PhD ”) summarises why advanced education can make you better skilled at defending wrong positions. All the critical thinking skills go into poking holes in the evidence that’s brought against you. Studies show that academics are among the most reluctant to give up an untenable position.
The argument for saying that we’re surrounded by cretins is that, if we weren’t, many more people would react. Surely, they would not be silent.
Not so fast. You must reckon with Brandolini’s law: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it”. It takes little effort to produce junk and nonsense, but it needs a lot to marshal the evidence that proves it’s wrong. So it’s the bullshit that remains conspicuous.
Then there’s the distrust. A world in which cretins and bullshit seemingly predominate is one in which the sane adults wonder if they’re alone. If you’re wondering about others, those others are wondering about you.
And if you think you’re alone, then the risk of doing something seems larger than the risk of doing nothing. Doing nothing is at least as likely a sign of distrust in others, including you, as it is a sign of passivity or approval or indifference.
If the people who reject the insanity and corruption are to persuade and mobilise others, we need to change how we communicate: help people recover their economic numeracy and their social literacy.
The language of pure divisiveness, casting the majority as cretins, is itself counterproductive. It is, in fact, stupid.